The students in my senior thesis course at Macaulay Honors College, part of the City University of New York, were scheduled to present their original research at the annual National Conference on Undergraduate Research, in Asheville, North Carolina in early April. Those plans have been cancelled because the governor of New York has banned state-funded travel to North Carolina as long as its new law remains in effect, which “creates the grounds for discrimination against LGBT citizens.”
North Carolina’s HB2 bill prohibits local governments from passing anti-discrimination ordinances and would require, among other provisions, that people use the restrooms in public schools or government buildings that match the gender specified on their birth certificates.
This effort to clamp down on transgender people, and other discriminatory laws and regulations like it, suggests that if somehow public restrooms are kept distinct, pure, and strictly defined, the categories of male and female will be unambiguous and simple as well.
Bathroom bills imply that we live in (or should live in) an essentially heterosexual, black-and-white, male/female world, and that the “true” identity of intersex or transgender people can be easily revealed by testing their chromosomes and checking their anatomy.
There’s so much wrong with this, I barely know where to begin.
First of all, who is going to do the examinations on grade school kids? This anatomical policing won’t be confined to high school students because more and more kids are gender non-conforming at younger and younger ages.
And most people don’t get their chromosomes checked routinely. Who is going to pay for that?
More important, the violations of privacy this act necessitates horrifies me. Will school children’s permanent records now include information on whether they have a penis or a vagina? XX or XY chromosomes?
And what about the intersex kids? Approximately 1/2000 people have an intersex trait, which means that they are born with some sort of incongruence between their external anatomy, internal anatomy, chromosomes, and hormones.
Some might be born with atypical genitals (a micropenis, for example — will that be on a boy’s permanent record?) Or perhaps they look like a typical girl but have XY chromosomes, as in cases of Androgen Insensitivity Syndrome. Is that something for the whole school to know about? Would such a girl need to use the teachers’ bathroom because her XY chromosomes don’t match her typically female body? The enforcement of bathroom bills will make so many people uncomfortable and face social isolation, if not worse.
Throughout American history people have been obsessed with finding a clear-cut division between male and female. There’s the assumption that if we only dig hard enough we can distinguish between the boys and the girls. Somehow we can’t seem to get it right. And the reason we can’t get it right is that those distinctions aren’t there. Anatomy clearly doesn’t tell the whole story of one’s gender, and as it turns out neither do chromosomes and hormone levels.
Clearly such laws will cause needless misery among many intersex, transgender, and gender non-conforming people in North Carolina and elsewhere if the trend continues.
Young transgender people already suffer disheartening hate and discrimination, and they have the suicide rates to show for it. Nationally, trans people are murdered in disproportionate numbers, particularly transwomen of color. They are four times more likely than the general public to be living in poverty, and nearly all report incidents of harassment at school when they were younger.
Social justice efforts need to prioritize the most vulnerable in the population, and it is shocking to me that our efforts focus on bathrooms when people are facing poverty and death. Clearly, all should be able to take care of their bodily needs comfortably, without fear of violence, without invasions of their privacy, and without their gender being questioned.
As for my disappointed students who won’t be able to present their research in North Carolina: the gender non-conforming ones will feel supported by Governor Cuomo’s ban, and the other ones will learn a powerful lesson about the unfairness of the world, and about public activism designed to achieve equality and social justice.
Elizabeth Reis is a professor of gender and bioethics at the Macaulay Honors College at the City University of New York. She is the author of Bodies in Doubt: An American History of Intersex, which was recently published in a 2nd edition, and Damned Women: Sinners and Witches in Puritan New England. She is also the editor of American Sexual Histories: A Social and Cultural History Reader.